Score Card: A River Runs Through It

Score Card is devoted to an unseen but pivotal force behind the best (and worst) movies: the motion picture score. An ethereal veil of ambiance, its absence can be as powerful as its presence, and its misuse can bring down a single scene or an entire film.

This column will be something of a journey for me. For though I appreciate film music, I am disadvantaged in that I do not know the the language or vocabulary of music. So I will proceed as delicately as I dare and ask that you bear with my ignorance.

It occurs to me there are two basic ways to enjoy a score: how well it drives the film and how well it stands on its own. It may be a movie’s perfect musical accompaniment but virtually unlistenable as a standalone piece of music. The best scores, of course, fuse both.

Fittingly, the first film score on this list is the first one to capture my interest as a piece of music for its own sake. By no means the first score I ever listened to or even owned, Mark Isham’s achingly blissful score for Robert Redford’s 1992 family drama A River Runs Through It nevertheless holds a melodic quality that captivated me in a way my previous interest in John Williams’ iconic anthems could not.

Mark Isham has scored over 100 movies across disparate genres, such as The Hitcher, Point Break and Crash. His more recent accomplishments include Dolphin Tale and the critically acclaimed Warrior. I had the privilege of speaking to Mr. Isham about his influences and inspirations for this score. Not being conversant in music history or classical music genres, I was curious as to how he found such an apposite musical accompaniment for a film in this particular era and this particular setting.

R: The music for a A River Runs Through It is so eloquently apropos and evocative of its time and place. What music pieces or composers inspired you and informed the score?

Mark Isham

MI: This was an unusual project for me in that Redford already had the movie scored by Elmer Bernstein. Bob didn’t feel that it delivered what he wanted and he started looking for other approaches. I asked him why he picked me. He had seen Never Cry Wolf and had tagged away in the back of his mind that I was a guy that he wanted to work with at some point.

It was a little uncomfortable for me because Elmer was an iconic composer and I was such a fan. I never heard Elmer’s score so I can’t say what Bob didn’t like. [Redford] had put new music into the film, what’s known as a temp score. I heard only this temporary music and, to be honest, I didn’t like most of it. I didn’t feel that it made any kind of statement for the movie, until the last scene where Bob had added this beautiful piece performed by Jean Pierre Rampal. He’s a classical flautist who had done an album of Celtic songs for flute and orchestra, and it was one of those achingly beautiful Irish folk songs. I thought, now I’m feeling all the stuff that I think Bob wants to communicate. After the first screening he turned to me and said, “What do you think?” and I said, “I know what to do.” I didn’t look at the picture for a week, just wrote. I do remember that I worked feverishly because I had, I think, a month to do the whole score. Basically, I sat down and wrote four or five Celtic-style folk songs that informed the style of the score.

R: You had a comparatively small orchestra for this compared to many films.

MI: I think maybe the biggest orchestra on this film was about sixty [instruments]. I think the brass is only on a couple of cues, the river disaster and other scenes like that.

R: Were there particular composers of that era you drew from?

MI: The Jean Pierre album was the primary influence for the music. One day Robert came over to the house and brought William Walton’s A Scottish Symphony as something he had been listening to. Ultimately I just knew I had to compose the right melody.

R: Do you listen to film scores as their own piece of music or do you find them inextricably linked to the film?

MI: I find that certain composers are compelling outside the picture. The style of texturing and orchestrating scores has really changed and that’s been a big exploration for composers. You want the music to be more directly connected to the movie. If you’re scoring a dialogue heavy movie, for example, it’s very difficult to write a score that can really serve that movie and also be able to stand up on its own. In the thirties and forties the style of music was playing “very big and busy”. You could take it out and it could be a bloody symphony. In the sixties, that sort of went away and the scores became more specific to the picture. I think in current filmmaking there are experiments in ambient music that are fascinating.

R: When listening to a score on its own, I’ve noticed that, almost without exception, the album tracks are out of sequence from the way their corresponding scenes are ordered in the film. Do you know why that is?

MI: I do know why that would be. I try to actually sequence an album in the order in which it appears in the film. But then you run up against the problem whether it is a pleasing order musically. Does one track flow into the next? I just constructed the album for Dolphin Tale. I managed to keep most of it in the order of the film but somewhere around act two it just got boring. There were tracks that were just too similar. You want the pacing to change and the album to stand up as its own work and listening experience.

The Warrior soundtrack is completely out of film order. The first half of the film is just ambient music played with two instruments, and then the score just explodes. It becomes one of the biggest scores I’ve ever built. On the album, I start with the music that opens the film but within thirty seconds I go into the first “big” track of the score.

R: Are there certain film composers that inspire you?

MI: When I was coming up in the business I got to know [Thomas] Newman and I have great respect for him. I think he’s a wonderful composer. [John] Williams, he’s the master. Eliot Goldenthal, he’s the real deal.

R: What do you mean he’s the real deal?

MI: There are composers who come into orchestral composition who really study the traditional art and craft of it. I sort of picked it up over the years. I had not necessarily been trained in the craft of orchestral composition. [Goldenthal] is really trained. I hear that in Alexandre Desplat, Hans [Zimmer] comes from a very different background more like I do. He comes from the pop world.

R: Which of your film compositions are you most proud of?

MI: I think Black Dahlia is some of my best orchestral work. Also A River Runs Through It, Lions for Lambs and Eight Below. Crash may be my favorite electronic score. And I have a soft spot for a few of my jazz scores; Afterglow and The Cooler. I think I’ve found moments in those scores to really express something, a higher quality of music.

R: Which of your other scores, if any, would you say is most like this one?

MI: There are other scores that relate to that [melodic influence]. I think October Sky relates to that, as well as The Education of Little Tree. They’re scores about rural America and they have strong melodic content.

R: Do you have a favorite track on A River Runs Through It or do you only think of the score as a whole?

MI: I remember the ending, In the Half-light of the Canyon I think it’s called. This is the sort of movie that if the last scene doesn’t pay off, you walk out of the theatre wondering about that, whether or not it paid off. It has to be done with the poetry of the words, the beauty of the words and the beauty of the music.

In the Half Light of the Canyon

The poetry and beauty of Isham’s melodies on A River Runs Through It are, to use his own words, achingly beautiful. One of the striking things about this score is how stripped down it is compared to the heavy orchestrations of other major motion pictures. In keeping with the simplicity of Redford’s theme, Isham utilizes a comparatively austere orchestra. Where Redford unfolds a lyrical drama, Isham coats it with a soothing, meditative chant. With a heavy reliance on strings, piano, and flute, he paints an aural pastoral of simple midwestern quietude, perfectly underscoring a film of placid, and ultimately somber, drama.

The soulful and melancholy strings that open the film lovingly foreshadow what is to come. A single violin sets the mood, evoking a turn-of-the-century country solitude, but with a tinge of sadness that portends a fading era and the inevitable passage of time. The piano and flute in the early fishing sequences summon images of the Big Blackfoot River whereupon the Maclean family practices its religion of fly-fishing, while the babbling brook piano provides the baseline, and the flutes evoke the playful intensity of a briskly flowing stream. Appropriately, the Irish/Scottish ancestry of the music underscores the drama at the heart of the Scottish Maclean family.

At the same time, Isham’s bucolic melodies capture a simpler life in a peaceful time. The four stirring notes that form the basic theme of the film float softly from flutes, while piano and violins capture the rush of the river on tracks like Shooting The Chutes and A Fine Fisherman And The Big Blackfoot River.

By the time the penultimate track, In The Half-Light Of The Canyon, has reached in and troubled your soul, the up-tempo of Haunted By Waters – A River Runs Through It (Reprise) is there to massage it, though it is no less weepy. There are few more perfect resolutions to such an exquisitely elegant score.

'A River Runs Through It' by Mark Isham
A River Runs Through It at iTunes, Amazon, or Barnes and Noble.

  • Mary Hale